Monday, July 23, 2012

What's Wrong With Standardized Tests? (by Mike Jones)

Are standardized tests fair and helpful evaluation tools?  Not really. They are very limited in what they reveal about a student. They reward the ability to quickly answer superficial questions that do not require much thought. They do not measure the ability to think or create or to see and understand  nuances in writing whether literary, historical or scientific. These tests can encourage a narrowed curriculum resulting in the famous line “teach to the test”. They are also class and race biased based on the language and syntax used  in the test questions themselves.

Are standardized tests objective?  They are objective in terms of how they are scored but the wording and choice of questions, the determination of the correct answer and the ways that the tests are administered are not.  They can, however, provide some comparative analysis of students and schools from different parts of a given state or city.

Do tests reflect what we know about how students learn?  Not really. Standardized tests are based in behaviorist theories from the nineteenth century. While our understanding of the brain and how people learn and think has progressed enormously, tests have remained the same.  Knowledge cannot be compartmentalized and people don’t learn by passively absorbing  bits of information. If they cannot actively make meaning out of what they are doing or reading, they do not learn or remember. But most standardized tests are still based on recall of isolated facts and narrow skills. 

Do multiple-choice tests measure important student achievement?  They do not measure the ability to write, to use math in a real deep sense, to make meaning from text when reading, to understand scientific methods or reasoning, or to grasp social science concepts. Nor do these tests adequately measure thinking skills or assess what people can do on real-world tasks. They mostly reflect a regurgitation of knowledge that has been “poured” in from the teachers.  

What can multiple-choice items be used for? Multiple-choice items are best used for checking whether students have learned facts and routine procedures that have one, clearly correct answer. If, on a reading test, a student selected a somewhat plausible answer, does it mean that she cannot read, or that she does not see things exactly the way the testmaker does?   Carefully written multiple-choice items can fairly accurately tell if a student can grasp a basic concept or not.

Are test scores helpful to teachers?  For a variety of  reasons, NO.  Teachers generally do not find scores from standardized tests very helpful, so they rarely use them. Not only is the timing of test results problematic (tests administered in the spring of the previous year don’t come out until late summer or early fall of the following year), but also the data is generally not presented in a useful way.  For instance a teacher could use test score data from previous years to improve instruction for future students in particular areas of study (say the Great Depression, for instance, in U.S. History).  If a history teacher had properly disaggregated data that showed his or her students generally did not “score” well in this particular strand (the GD), then she/he could work on changing instruction.  Obviously the delay time that exists between test administration and the results are of  no use for a teacher dealing with their current students.

Should standardized tests be abolished?  No, but they should definitely be deemphasized.  The states and federal government need to develop accountability systems that are based on multiple forms of assessment, which include, but are not limited or overly-reliant on standardized  tests.  Multiple assessments could include portfolios, projects, performance-based evaluations, reports and experiments among other evaluative tools.

Questions and parts of these answers are based on information provided by Fair Test.  As a high school teacher who has administered these tests for the past 9 or 10 years and who has actively opposed NCLB and high stakes testing for the same basic  period of time, I have a pretty strong understanding of the  faults of high stakes testing.

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